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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Rebbe in the Basement


The Rebbe in the Basement

New York, Upper East Side: “Are you here to see the Rebbe?” someone asks, a guy I haven’t seen in maybe a decade, shouting over five or six heads in the two or three feet of space between us.

It’s a crowded, windowless basement, deep in a part of Manhattan I never expected to find myself in. I got off the subway near the 59th Street Bridge, which may have been where Simon & Garfunkel hung out 50 years ago but now is just a neat mess of shiny apartment buildings, most decked out with holly for the season with a few darkened windows where there’s probably Jews hiding.

My teacher from yeshiva, Leibish, who’s just taken over from the tzaddik Sholom Brodt, was speaking. A band I really like was arranged to play. I had a work event late; I’d be in the city anyway, and I’d been a little antisocial lately but my best friend in town was moving to Texas so I might as well force myself to stay out a bit, right?

The apartment on the invite was dead. The doorman looked at me askew, but I told him the number and he called up once — no answer — but he tried again and he said into the phone, “Niccolo, someone named Matthue to see you?”

Now, when you’re not just Jewish but Orthodox, and not just Orthodox but into weird hippie mystical occult stuff, there aren’t too many people with names like Niccolo. There aren’t many Matthues, either, and I recognized the name as one I’d heard in Crown Heights, one Purim several years back, when he asked what kind of Hasid I was and I said Biala Ostrova and he literally fell on the floor in surprise because he was, too, and there aren’t too many of us in the world. The joke is, most Hasidic rebbes show up with a carful of followers; in Biala, you get a follower and a car full of rebbes.

He tells the concierge, the class is somewhere else, and it’s a cold night so I don’t blame him for staying home but I say, “Could you tell him Matthue says hi?” and the guy looks at me like, what are you, in fifth grade, and asks if I just want to talk. I take the phone, hungering for that little bit of connection, and he says, “Good to hear you, brother, I’ll see you in a few minutes, right?” and I figure I’ve misread the situation and I figure I’d better take the address and start walking.

It’s 18 blocks and an avenue or two. I’ve been out of Manhattan nights so long the numbers don’t naked any sense to me and I don’t know whether the walk is normal or ridiculous, but it’s to see Leibish, which is worth a little sacrifice. Along the way I pass diners, old men in jeff caps walking tiny dogs, single people crying or laughing into phones, and it’s so cold you can’t tell which and maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe a hundred years ago I would’ve stopped to ask if they were okay, but tonight I’m already an hour late, I’m no longer good with people, I’m not looking for adventures, just a way to get home as early as possible — I have to be up for the kids — and I don’t know where I’m going, and it occurs to me that the new address has no apartment number, an impossibility in this neighborhood.

I walk there, and I walk past it, and there on the basement door is the number of the place. The plaque says BOMA and there’s no windows, but there is singing, and I go in.

The room is packed. A wall of tall potted plants separates men from women. There are guys with long beards and guys with no beards, guys in black and white and guys in crosshatched business shirts, guys with empty plates, guys still stuffing their faces. The smell of kugel hangs rich in the air, this bubbling hot pudding of pulverized potatoes and onions and oil, and it’s the most addictive thing in the world, like French fries mixed with cocaine, and a whole mosh pit separates me from the kitchen, but getting some is the furthest thing from my mind.

Leibish is talking.

He’s gray now. His beard is an upside-down Afro, his payos are frizzy antennae plugged into another world, and his voice has not aged a day, that half-singing, half-whispering voice like he’s always about to tell you a secret.

“The yud in G-d’s name, the י, is infinity. The black part of the letter is just a dot, it’s almost all white. The next letter hay, the ה, is the space we have to make for G-d in this world, not the world of infinity, but how we harness that infinity and constrict it and bring it into our lives. Like, this world is nothing! You can’t take it too seriously! Here, I’m going to tell you a joke. Let me think of a joke.”

This is what I crossed the city for. It’s already 9 p.m., I’m barely going to stay here an hour, but if all I get is this moment of Leibish and his Torah, that’s all I need, that’s what I was meant to be here for.

He speaks, and he speaks for a while, and then we move into the basement apartment next door, where the band is setting up. Someone hands Leibish his saxophone and it sort of swings around his body. He contorts into it, like Coltrane, like a baby spooning its mother. And maybe this is the time I get up and start thinking about the potato kugel upstairs? Except I’m probably volunteering to help move stuff. Carrying the microphone stands like harpoons, swinging two chairs on each hip almost like I know what I’m doing. Down the stairs, back up again.

“Are you here to see the Rebbe?”

I forget his name. Someone I haven’t seen in a decade. The place is even more packed, if that’s possible. The Rebbe? Which rebbe? I didn’t even have to ask. I knew which rebbe.

“Which rebbe?”

I asked anyway. These days, I think, I am too much hay with not enough yud, all contraction and no infinity. I get done what needs to get done. It’s getting late. Bedtime is calling.

“The holy Ostrova Biala Rebbe! You know him, don’t you?”

That’s one way to say it. When I was in Israel, pulled there by a new wife and father-in-law whose motives I had yet to completely grok, I resented Israel for not being San Francisco. Then I started in the yeshiva where Leibish taught, and at night one of my teachers would take me to the office of the Ostrova Biala Rebbe, where we waited for hours for him to repeat our names over and over again, give us advice for love and jobs and friends and art, pray with us, and pinch our cheeks with a grip that was alarmingly firm.

“He’s here? In New York?”

“In this apartment, in the back room.”

I ran to the back room. The door was shut, of course. In front of it was Niccolo, who had stood back up since the last time we met. “Is the Rebbe here?” I gasped out, breathless.

He told me he was. He told me I could see him. He told me there was just one person in line, just as a short Israeli woman left, together with her interpreter, and half a dozen people leaped from all corners of the apartment to bum rush the door.

Niccolo stepped in. He had all the decorum and reserve of a documentary moderator. “Now, who has an appointment,” he said, “and who just wants a blessing?”

A blessing seemed like the 10-items-or-less express lane. I would take a blessing. That’s all I really wanted, right? To be blessed.

We waited. The quickie blessings seemed not to be so quick. In the meantime, the as-yet-unblessed of us hung out outside, talking, trading stories, figuring out where we knew each other from. I freaked. My friend Hillel, who when we used to hang out were both Kafka nerds and now he’s in charge of a whole school, hundreds of kids’ minds being formed by him, talked me down. “Don’t prepare things to ask about or things you want to tell him,” he said. “Just let it happen.”

“Be the hay,” I agreed.

It was my time, and I went in. Niccolo, who I realized somewhere in the waiting was actually the conductor of this whole operation, the concert that was still going downstairs and the Rebbe and his stalkers, stayed inside. In part of my aforementioned freakout, I remembered in a rush that the Rebbe only spoke Hebrew, and then I remembered that I spoke no Hebrew.

And then we were face to face.

I’m not going to tell you what we talked about. I will tell you that he said shehechiyanu, the prayer that you say on special occasions, when he saw me. I’ll tell you that he made me say my family’s names, including all my kids’ ridiculously long full Hebrew names, and he said “is that it?” when I was finished. We talked for two minutes. We talked for an eternity. We laughed a lot, and I can’t remember at all why we were laughing.

He said something that made Niccolo and I both jump up and down. He didn’t pinch my face, but he slapped my cheek, several times, hard, and I literally lost my balance. (Full disclosure: I’d been up since 6, and blowing on me might have made me lose my balance at that point.) He said one thing that was totally unexpected, that I’d only been thinking about for a day or two, and when he said it he looked surprised and turned to Niccolo. Niccolo didn’t look surprised at all. “Rebbe, of course you knew,” he said.

And then I left, and then I stumbled to the subway. I’d only taken a few steps when I remembered that, in the waiting room, someone had told me to look outside the door. “The Rebbe’s not the first wise person to have a minyan here,” he’d said. I looked, and this is what I saw.

I never expected to be on the Upper East Side. But I guess G-d has plans for us all, even those ghosty areas of Manhattan.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Stubby Teeth: a new short story

My story Stubby Teeth was just published in Barzakh Magazine. I'm honored to be in its pages.

So the story is a response to something my

professor Josh Henkin told our class when I was a cocky first-semester grad student at Brooklyn College. He said (and I'm paraphrasing, and he said it better) that it's impossible to write a story from the point of view of an inanimate object, a pet, or a small child, because stories are based on characters being able to act on their own, and a good story is all about your characters taking agency.

Well, I was young and eager and full of chutzpah. I was also a young father, underslept and full of conviction that not only did babies have agency, they were running my whole damn life. I went home and, right away, started writing this story.

I hope you like it.

Stubby Teeth

His mother was gone, and she had never been gone before. And now he was in a very big room with a very big woman who was not his mother, and several toys, and a smattering of other kids, and no mother. The walls were white. There were no windows, and no mother. He screamed.

The scream lasted several minutes, until he had run completely out of breath. He rubbed his stubby teeth together while he gathered the oxygen for more.

A pair of woman’s hands—long fingers, chubby knuckles—sandwiched him, his back and his stomach. They rubbed and rubbed, and though he tried to squirm out of their tractor-beam pull and fight the rhythmic alternation of palms and fingertips, those large hands with their pod-like palms, steady and insistent, and their confident beat lulled him into complacency. Just why was he agitated, again? He no longer remembered.

The woman spoke to him, slow and warm. Gradually, he realized that she wasn’t trying to communicate a specific meaning or directive, as his mother did when she spoke, but rather to give a sort of human background noise, like music during his mother’s yoga or television when he was supposed to not talk to her, a meaningless string of syllables as she guided him to an area of the room with one thick oceanic carpet, on top of which sat a gaggle, a small herd, of other humans, small humans.

(Barzakh's cover by Mali Fischer.)

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

A Rebel Poet Wrestles with His Rebel Kids

Poetry is so hard to understand. It’s like a dream, but not a full dream dream, more like a vivid half-waking experience with people who you aren’t sure if they’re real or not, standing in places that might never have existed.

Jake Marmer’s new collection of poems, The Neighbor Out of Sound (buy it direct) (or amazon), takes its title from a poem by Emily Dickinson, but its influence stretches out way farther in both directions, toward the more distant past and the more recent one: he combines jazz with Jewish teachings, improvisation with careful rhythm and breaks, the wisdom of thousands of years of chazal with his own frantic, limitless thoughts.

(And yes, I know it’s weird to call poems that are printed in a book “improvisations” — it sounds like a nice way of saying unedited. But there’s a spontaneity to these verses, a connected randomness like a really good middle-of-the-night dvar torah that comes at the end of a Shabbos tisch, where your brain connects one thing with another, geography homework with Elijah coming before the idol-worshiping priests, and everything seems to flow together in a way that makes utter sense of the universe.)

Geez, it’s hard to review poems, isn’t it?

It might be easier just to make you read them. Two poems, placed side by side in this book, “Root-Note Nigun” and “3 A.M. Nigun,” give two different takes on the Hasidic form of melody, a type of song that, traditionally, has no words. Here’s what I mean:


Root Nigun

this nigun is about a stick figure
a two-bone abstraction, solitary root
note, resounding its stripped chorus —


It keeps going, but then, a page later, we get this:


3 A.M. Nigun

two silences rise on each side of you
amplifying shadows of possession —

family of three — the dream of us
like the never-thickening liquid
all night poured in
and out of the bedroom’s cup


These poems are almost not poems. They’re half-poems, half jazz, the same way that Miles Davis will play a song that scales up and down in complicated patterns and then, somehow, it stumbles into a pop chorus that’s simple and catchy and gets stuck in your head all afternoon.

The poems wrestle with Judaism and G-d just as they wrestle with new fatherhood, career-hood, the unfamiliar weight of responsibility. It’s hard to go from being a snarky, provocative single person into an ostensibly responsible adult who’s not only responsible for teaching your children about traffic lights and potty training but also your own history, the old country of Ukraine, where Marmer grew up, and also the old country of New York, while living in a California paradise. He writes: “Almost three years old, on the toilet / he says: god / is everywhere / but you can’t see him, papa,” and then wryly notes: “The things we fought for / came back to bite us.” As his children discover themselves — playful, contrarian, mischievous — Marmer wrestles with his own self-discovery.

And yes, it’s funny, and yes, it’s cute, but Marmer doesn’t stay there. He takes us to the next level, a level of intimacy and truth. It’s messy, it’s gross, it’s inexact, and it takes us to a place of raw emotional honesty. In “Writing Prompt for a Young Parent,” he writes:

When your kids are sick, really sick, let them into your bed.
Let them cough and drool on your pillow.
In the morning, inhale the pillow’s worth of their sweet bad breath, and
their pain and terror intensified by sickness —
the terror you must have been the source of

Marmer straddles so many worlds in his verse, old and new, East Coast and West, jazz and Talmud, that it can sometimes feel dizzying to read them all at once. But you can’t stop. The greater effect of these pieces is a biography: not just Marmer’s story but that of his children, his parents and grandparents in Russia, his influences (from Mingus to Monk to Rebbe Meir and Sholem Aleichem) and his world. This book, this cross-section of his life, is a record of a transformation that is both singularly Marmer’s voice and an experience that touches us all.


Buy the book The Neighbor Out of Sound direct or on Amazon.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Sholom Brodt Was Not a Tzaddik

When wine goes in, the secrets come out. In A Shtikel Sholom, a new memoir of stories about his teacher and mine, Sholom Brodt, Barak Hullman writes about a drunken Simchas Torah they spent together.

“When you die,” Barak said to Rav Sholom, “everyone is going to say, ‘Oh, what a great tzaddik! Such a big rabbi!”

Sholom, who was, at these times and most others, playful and mischievous, turned hard and sober.

“G-d forbid,” he told Barak.

And Sholom, who was always thinking about G-d, who spent pretty much every moment I’d ever seen him doing things for other people, going out of his way to be kind to the students in his house and tolerant to the neighbors who swept in and ate his food and filled his rooms and stayed all hours of the day and night, maybe approached sainthood in a way that most of us wouldn’t dream of, or want to.

But he wasn’t like that. He wasn’t even a hidden tzaddik. He was a tzaddik in denial. He had such gorgeous, perfect faults. He was so good at being human.

“When you die,” Barak said that night, “I’m going to shout at the top of my lungs, ‘Sholom Brodt was not a tzaddik!’ That’s going to be my final gift to you.”

In the years after, Sholom would remind him of his promise. Years later, when Sholom did die, Barak said to his wife, “What am I going to do? I promised him.” You can’t, she said. People wouldn’t understand. And Barak said, “It’s a once in a lifetime deal. Do you think Sholom would want people calling him a tzaddik?”

So at the end of the funeral procession, after everyone spoke, when the assembled company was about to dissemble, Barak stepped to the front. He said what he needed to say, what he’d promised Rav Sholom all this time ago.


A Shtikel Sholom is friendly in the most intimate of ways. It doesn’t have deep secrets, but it has plenty of shallow secrets, the moments that you only share with the people who know you better than anyone else, better than you know yourself.

It’s the reason I felt repulsed when I first read it. Because I thought I knew Sholom like that, and I only knew the book’s author, Barak Hullman, in a cursory, across-the-shul, oh-he’s-the-guy-who-sings-a-little-too-glee-clubbish way. When my in-laws sent me a clipping of the Jerusalem Post advertisement for the book, I had to ask myself, who was writing it? Who has the chutzpah and the closeness to write 300 pages about the man who helped us survive our first year of marriage, who stayed at our Brooklyn home whenever he was called away from Jerusalem, who seemed to have something new to share, something meant only for me, every time I saw him or spoke to him?

That was one of Sholom’s gifts. I wasn’t his only confidant. I wasn’t even his only student, even though his yeshiva, Simchat Shlomo in Nachlaot, fluctuated between two and ten students during the year I was there. It’s bigger now, not that numbers matter, because Simchat Shlomo’s virtue, and Rav Sholom’s virtue, was not that he attracted masses of students — the yeshiva attracted the students who needed it to exist, a yeshiva of misfits and weirdos and doubters and true believers. While I was there, my chevrusas included a comic book artist, a self-proclaimed heathen, an Internet activist with the handle Orthodox Anarchist, and a banjo player.

The yeshiva was named after Shlomo Carlebach, but it took on Sholom’s personality. It may have been scant most days for morning prayers, but every week for shalosh seudos, the come-and-hear meal and meditation that closes out Shabbos, Sholom and Judy’s house was packed, and the walls swelled like the cosmic sukkah made of leviathan skin that will grow to house all the righteous at the end of days.


I don’t want to tell you about Sholom, I want to tell you about this book. And the book is such a treasure. Some chapters are only a paragraph long, some expand to a page or two. All of them are deft, funny, wise in unexpected ways.

Like the one where Barak complains about a crazy guy at shul who was praying maniacally, and Sholom says that we should all merit to pray like we’re crazy.

And the one where he ducked out of a rabbinical program just before the final test, telling Sholom, “I don’t want to be a rabbi,” and Sholom, thinking deeply, said, “Neither do I.”

And the one where, also on Simchas Torah, a stranger shows up in a black hat and a long kapota, dancing around the shul, and it’s revealed to be Sholom, who would never wear such things, but that night his hidden self has become revealed.

Reading these stories makes you profoundly sad. Not just a retroactive fear of missing out based in the past, where you wish you could just grab a time machine and wind up at a party you hadn’t known existed, but in terms of putting limits on the limitless. Sholom was infinite. You never knew what was going to come out of his mouth next, or where he’d show up. When he died, he became finite. He would never be unexpected again. This book has an end.


On Shabbos I was getting water for our family’s lunch table and I reached for what we always call the Sholom pitcher. Once, while staying at our house, Sholom used a pitcher of water and accidentally cracked it. He got up early and went out to all the Jewish markets until he found a glass pitcher that matched its design almost exactly. It was no big deal! And we had other pitchers! And we barely even used pitchers! But he wanted to replace the pitcher he broke, and we didn’t even know until he replaced it. What could we say but thank you? So we did.

“Be transparent to your source,” Barak quotes Sholom saying in one of these stories. “When you give someone a glass of water, they should know it’s from G-d and not from you.” I poured water for him hundreds of times, Barak writes. Every time in my head, I’d repeat, be transparent to your source, be transparent to your source.

The philosopher Alain de Botton once attempted the impossible: to write an autobiography of his best friend. The effort was interesting, but it was so insular and overthought that it ended up revealing less about his subject and more about de Botton himself.

This book is a treasure, a gift. I almost wish that I didn’t know Sholom before so that I could have the experience of knowing his character through this beautifully incomplete portrait. I’m sure I will go back to this book again and again, get to know its hundred-plus anecdotes, each another piece of the gorgeously complicated puzzle that was Sholom Brodt, memorize these lines as well as I know some of my favorite books. But I did know Sholom, and he still holds an infinite piece of my heart, and I’ll never be able to see the borders and the limitlessness of the person I knew, who might not have been perfect in the classical sense, who would hate my saying this, but whose mistakes were the mistakes of a tzaddik.

Buy the book A Shtickel Sholom on the author’s website or on Amazon. 

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Writing about Dead People

I was out to breakfast with my brother-in-law, who told me he really liked my latest Hevria piece. I thanked him, then immediately regretted it, because how do you thank someone for memories that aren't yours? This is how it goes.

The Friend I Never Called

BY   JUNE 19, 2018  ESSAY
I steal names. You should know this, first of all, if you want to be friends with me (or friends of friends, or one-night drinking buddies, or if you just wanna ask me about my weird hair). If you have a good name, or a strange name, or a musical name, I might swipe it and stick it in a story.
Alexandra Blitman didn’t just have a name that stuck in my head like a song, but she was a person who did. She was the first person I knew who played cello — before her, the only actual cellist I knew about was the Slovakian cellist in the James Bond movie The Living Daylightswhich my dad let me see with him when I was 9.
So I’m writing a story about a kid named Alex who’s a boy, and his best-friend-who-he-maybe-has-a-crush-on, also named Alix, who’s a girl, and I used real-life Alex’s name. Two strong trochees that might rhyme even though they mostly don’t. And Alex herself — she’s one of these people I always meant to keep up with and never did, and the few times I searched her nothing came up.
Then, last night, this did.
I tell stories for a living, and know that each is more than its headline. But Alexandra Blitman’s feels different:
I met her when we were kids, and we graduated from middle and high school together. We weren’t close, but we were friendly. Alex was friendly with everyone, though — a bright, free spirit whose genuine enthusiasm for life drew all of us to her, the straight arrows and the skaters and the jocks and everyone in between.
She died March 7, days after overdosing on heroin. She was 38.
Read the rest of my post here, or read the original article that inspired my piece.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Cooking with the Anarchist Kosher Cookbook

Like the allusory joke of its title, Maxwell Bauman’s collection of short stories The Anarchist Kosher Cookbook has a very limited audience—a niche within a niche, that limited number of beautiful people who will have at least a passing familiarity with both The Anarchist Cookbook, the perpetually-Xeroxed manual of homemade explosive devices for domestic uprisings, and the sub-genre of cookbooks that do not merely contain kosher recipes, and certainly bear only the most passing resemblance to the miniature culinary museums-on-paper put out by Yotam Ottolenghi and his ilk, but echo more the haimishe delights and misspellings of Spice & Spirit and The Molly Goldberg Cookbook and The Famous Jewish Cookbook — that is, those garishly-printed 1970s volumes that regard jello as an all-purpose ingredient and expound on the myriad ways that tuna fish can be turned into salad.

In other words: Maxwell Bauman, don’t expect this book to become the next Da Vinci Code.

But a few weeks ago, the comedian Moshe Kasher posted a tweet that was just as niche: “Martin Buber’s personal pronouns are I/Thou,” summoning the intersection of those at the forefront of the evolution of nonbinary queer grammar and post-WWII Jewish theological philosophy, and I watched in pleased surprise as the numbers of hearts and retweets circulated higher and higher. Maybe there’s still few enough of us weird Jews to warrant a manifesto, but there’s also enough to cling to these tiny sporadic appearances in the overlap of people who are really into Judaism and really into oddness — enough, at least, to deserve a book like The Anarchist Kosher Cookbook, and to will Maxwell Bauman into existence.

I’m going to reprint the book’s table of contents here, partly just so you can appreciate it:

  • When the Bush Burns
  • The Messiah in New York
  • You’ve Lost that L’chaim Feeling
  • The Leviathan Blues
  • The Anarchist Kosher Cookbook
  • Baphomitzvah

Partly, it’s that his combination of deviously clever puns and intermixing lingos — Baphomitzvah, for example (and if you didn’t know), portmanteaus the demonic celestial Baphomet with the time-honored Jewish ritual of Bar Mitzvahs, or, in the case of this story, a b’nai mitzvah. As we see the first sparkle of the demonic creature’s existence, the repeated snubbings and the heightening impending revenge of the titular bas mitzvah girl, we see both tropes of stories rearing their heads: the ugly-girl horror-story narrative, in which our likeable but socially-spurned antiheroine comes into contact with satanic powers, claims them for her own, then wreaks a mirrored havoc on the community and town who have wreaked a similar sort of havoc on her. To put this on top of the modern secular bar mitzvah narrative isn’t subversive, it just makes sense — but it works, and it works so joyously well.

That’s a lot of the joy of The Anarchist Kosher Cookbook. Substituting a golem for homemade molotov cocktails in the title story is a no-brainer, but the story’s power comes from the effortlessness of the twin narratives. Yes, Emma Goldman and Abbie Hoffman were Jewish and pillars of countercultural uprisings, but much of their personal journeys lay in ignoring or minimizing their background and/or affiliation. In the title story, he embraces it. The language of revolution is weaponized not by youngsters and upstarts and in spite of their Judaism, but by elderly rabbis and bubbes, and because of it — and by those youngsters and upstarts who claim that tradition.

The mixing occasionally has mixed results. I first encountered this book at an indie-books conference held in one of those sports arena-size conference halls with a million aisles and people swarming them like an ant farm. If you know anything about me, you can picture our first encounter: me catching sight of the cover typography, then actually reading the title, eyes popping out of head, body popping out of skin, &tc. To paraphrase Moshe Kasher’s tweet, I was pretty sure the audience for the title was me.

I read the first page of the first story, “When the Bush Burns,” and I was in weird Jewish heaven. Forgive me (and, by extension, Maxwell), but it’s raunchy.

I curled up and pulled the covers over my head, but the light was much stronger under the sheets. I opened my eyes to discover bright orange flames flickering out the edges of my panties.

“Good morning, Beth,” said the fire.

I screamed and kicked off the sheets.

“What’s wrong?” my husband called from the kitchen.

“My pussy’s on fire!”

“I’ll get you some cranberry juice,” he said.

It works on so many levels, right? Geez, I was into this. But the story devolves into — minor spoilers in this paragraph — the couple’s inability to conceive, and the work of a G-dly miracle/satanic imp/odd vaginal trickster to get her to hook up with the sketchy, overly willing rabbi of their synagogue. The story felt like it started promising Talmudic deconstruction and ended as a MAD magazine take on what a page of Talmud would look like, but without the sly evenhanded irony of a MAD article. At a few other places in the collection, Bauman makes a few errors/assumptions/missteps with regards to historical or cultural accuracy, especially when dipping into his Hasidic caricatures, which at other times in my life I’d get annoyed at or offended by — but this collection is meant to offend, good-naturedly, and for the annoyance part, I’ll just say that nothing’s too egregious, and probably could have used a little more research/asking questions, but it all really does seem to be coming from a good place.

And then there’s “The Leviathan Blues.” This story. I could write an entire other essay about this story, and how much I loved it, and how much it disturbed me — not about the character of G-d in the story, but about our entire notion of G-d as an almighty arbiter of our lives, as a storyteller in the most evil and poetic way, as Someone who’s looking out for everyone in the world, and because of this makes some decisions that are, at best, direly sad.

I don’t want to give too much of it away, but you know the story of the Leviathan, right? When G-d created the world, G-d made the Leviathan, a sea monster bigger than all other animals, and soon realized that they would fill up the sea and the Earth and there would be no room for other creatures. So G-d had to uncreate it. Anyway, this story takes that particular story and expands it, and it really does bear the fruit of a bit of research, or of digging into the several stories on this aggadic cryptozoid, but the story’s most successful technique, I think, is its simple way lingering on every moment, filling it with detail and thought.

It still has Bauman’s irreverence and his humor, it still has that cruelty and irony, but it fills the pages with the Leviathan’s pain and rage the way the Leviathan fills the sea. It’s graceful, it’s tragic, and it makes all of us who aren’t majestic, lonely sea monsters see a little more just how big, and how small, the world can be.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

💪🤓 : Working Out, When You're a Nerd

I've been working out for a while now -- close to a year, maybe? -- which isn't so impressive in the greater scheme of things, or at least it isn't so impressive when you're a normal person, but considering I belong to the muscle-less minority and, for the first 30 or so years of my life, my greatest caloric expenditure was bobbing my head to They Might Be Giants songs, this is pretty notable. If I do say so myself.

Nerds Who Work Out

BY   JANUARY 16, 2018  ESSAY

I started working out because I am cheap. There a zillion amazing things about working for Google, including free lunch (yes they order in kosher stuff for me) (but from a steakhouse, and I’m a vegetarian, so I eat a lot of pasta), but because I am a contractor — yes, even though I’ve worked here for 2 years — I don’t get basic things like healthcare.
So I feel this need to take advantage of every little bit of free stuff that does come my way.
At least, that’s what I told myself when I started. I really wasn’t prepared for this.
I wasn’t ready for working out to run my life.

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Thursday, January 4, 2018

"Jackie, but Famous," and how you can read it right now

I'm really proud to have a new short story in Prime Number Magazine. Here's the beginning of it, and the rest is right after that little link on the bottom. It's kind of about the last real person still left in New York City.

Jackie, but Famous

Jackie had been running for the train, the 6:02 out of the city, convinced she was going to miss it, but also convinced that, with the correct combination of actions—magical gestures, glances at good luck omens like doves and not evil ones like pigeons, not stepping on any cracks in the pavement—she might still be able to make it. She wasn’t going to make it. The elevator took forever to come. The stoplights were against her. Traffic was still too heavy to safely run across. She walked fast, arms stiff, cutting through the air to her sides. She passed the length of one parked car, then another. The street was still too busy.

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